When talk of relocating the Montreal Expos surfaced as more a reality than a leveraging ploy in 2001, Washington, D.C., was front and center as the most likely relocation destination for the beleaguered franchise. And, pushing Orioles owner Peter Angelos aside for the moment, there were some within the industry who saw the reunion of “MLB” and “Washington, D.C.” as a possible trip down memory lane.
As those who have followed MLB history know, the saying “First in war. First in peace. Last in the American League” has always been associated with the Washington Senators, a franchise which was steeped in futility and poor ownership. In the months and years since the Senators left D.C., the professional sports void was filled less by the Baltimore Orioles than it was by the NFL’s Washington Redskins.
So, when MLB decided to relocate the Expos to D.C. in 2005, there were those sitting on the sidelines wondering whether the club would succeed in a market that had historically been anything but a bellwether of success for MLB. Those who follow the market will tell you that D.C. has changed profoundly since the days of Bob Short and Calvin Griffith. Many MLB fans hardly remember or weren’t even born when the last Senators team skipped town in 1971 to become the Texas Rangers.
Fast forward to today, and the current owners of the MLB team that calls D.C. home seem to be doing everything in their power to reincarnate the ghosts of Short, Griffith and, truth be told, the other failed Major League teams that called the nation’s capitol home. The owners of the Nationals, headed by Ted Lerner and his family, have a strong background in real estate development in D.C. Unfortunately, this is baseball team that needs to be constructed, not a strip mall.
This isn’t to say it is all the Nationals' or Mr. Lerner's fault. The team had been stripped of talent when Jeffery Loria and MLB owned the team. But the Lerners knew that going in and had to understand that a shiny new stadium could keep fans in the D.C. market interested and satisfied for only so long.
MLB was wise to partner the experienced Stan Kasten with the Lerners as president of the club. Previously, Kasten was president of not only the Braves, but the NBA Atlanta Hawks and the NHL Thrashers… all at the same time. The problem is that in his current role Kasten is not fully empowered to make the changes needed to get the market excited about the team while also restocking the farm system – “Stan’s Plan.”
A club in a market the size of D.C. shouldn’t come out of the gate playing the part of a mid-to-small market franchise. Being frugal and spending wisely don’t mean fielding a team loaded with weak prospects and overvalued veterans. The Lerners need to find a happy medium.
The poor decisions being made by general manager Jim Bowden signal fundamental problems permeating the organization. Word is that the Lerners, not Kasten, enjoy having Bowden around despite his questionable roster moves and the fact that he is under investigation by the Commissioner's Office for skimming money from contracts for Dominican players. Add in ticket prices that border on the excessive, on-field performance worthy of having “Last Place” used in place of player names on the back of uniforms, and the Nationals are quickly becoming a footnote in the D.C. sports market, and, worse, the nation.
It isn’t just poor attendance that bears this out. Markets such as South Florida, where the Marlins announce a paid attendance barely over ten thousand, but in reality flirt with closer to 600-700 people in the seats, can at least point to solid television ratings. Not so with the Nationals.
The Nationals have to deal not only with a team heading toward a hundred losses, but the devoted fans of the Washington Redskins, and, to a lesser extent, the fans of the NBA Wizards and NHL Capitals. All three of these teams made the playoffs this past season following a year in which the Nationals were 16 games under .500. This impacts more than the Nationals' stadium attendance; it also directly affects their television and radio ratings.
How bad have the TV ratings been? When the Nationals played the Rockies on August 16 they were butting up against the Olympics and Michael Phelps' bid to win a record 8 gold medals in a single Olympic Games. The ratings for the Nationals that day had some using words like “cable access” levels. The game on WDCA-TV pulled a jaw-droppingly low rating of 0.07 with 1,600 television households, and, according to John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal, “a source said that the last half hour was below measurable ratings standards.”
So, maybe it was the Olympics and the national obsession with Michael Phelps? No.
This past Thursday, as the Redskins had their season opener on NBC, the Nationals played the Braves. Once again, the team's broadcast ratings were abysmally low. The game on MASN drew a 0.27 rating/6,000 households, showing that when it comes to sports in Washington D.C., the Redskins still rule the roost (by comparison, the Redskins pulled a 26 rating/600,000 households on NBC).
Radio ratings have been much the same. According to Arbitron, from May through July of this year, the Nationals drew a total – not monthly – audience of 26,500.
Maybe they should have named the team the Senators.
So, Ted Lerner, if you’re listening, the suggestion is for you to look around and realize that the Nationals – not the Marlins, Royals or Pirates – are the laughingstock of the league right now. Getting fans involved – starting yesterday, thank you very much – with your shiny new toy has to have the same priority as Kasten’s rebuilding of the farm system.
Here are some suggestions…
Make a splash… in the GM department. Step one has to be the removal of “Trader Jim” Bowden. Whether it has been Paul LoDuca, John Patterson, Johnny Estrada, or Felipe Lopez, Bowden has flushed wheelbarrows of money down the toilet by releasing players. Fans don't care about sunk costs when players are released. It’s time to get someone in the driver’s seat who can make a difference. My suggestion? Throw gobs of greenbacks at Brian Cashman, and when he walks through the door, leave him be. Let him do his work without interference. If not Cashman, be daring. Be bold. Be smart. Hire Dodgers Assistant GM Kim Ng. She’s paid her dues and you’ll come out looking like a trailblazer for being the owner who placed a woman in the GM position for the first time in history.
Make a splash… in the free agency arena. Don’t spend money on overvalued players, but spend on a “name” that can get help the team and draw media attention. Someone about whom fans will say, “Ted’s serious. Look who he let the club sign.” Sabathia may be too rich for your tastes, and Manny Ramirez may be Manny. But, there’s Carlos Delgado, Jim Thome, Mark Teixeira, or Raul Ibanez to consider. Pitching? How about Paul Byrd. Or go crazy and sign Andy Pettitte to a one-year deal. Balance your free agent signing(s) with the talent coming up through the system, but remember… fans in D.C. don’t appear to have much patience for the rebuilding process. You’re in a big market; act like it.
You lowered prices for tickets already, now take it further. Fans are going to have to be baited into seeing the team next year unless the baseball gods shine down upon the club and they produce a team that can contend. You were smart to announce recently that a fair number of tickets will be cheaper next season. Now get the promotions department working overtime for next season. Starting now. And consider slimming back the margins a bit on concessions. Here’s a suggestion: Run a gas card promotion all year long. People need the help, as do the Nats, and that's a perfect way to show you can relate to them.
Finally, there is this: You can’t lay all the blame on a bad team and poor management. The fans have to take on some of the responsibility for hurting the cause. Far smaller markets are having terrible seasons (hello, Seattle) and are drawing better attendance while seeing broadcast viewership far in excess of what the D.C. market is accomplishing. When Stan Kasten was asked about the recent abysmal television figures, he declined comment. What could he possibly say? He can’t force fans to watch or listen or – heaven forbid – go to a game. Right now, all those who said that D.C. was, and always will be, a Redskins market are smugly nodding their heads. The fans have to at least make a passing effort, and the team – through on-field performance, promotional efforts, strategic pricing, and successful marketing – has to entice them. All it takes is a glimmer of hope, and fans are willing to jump on board.
The Nationals aren’t going anywhere. Fans will tell you they are locked in for over 30 years with their lease. While true, it really won’t matter much if those same fans aren’t tuning in… or at least aren’t tuning into the Nationals. Being a laughingstock isn't much to brag about.
Ownership, it’s time to get the bandwagon fans into your team. The new stadium has already lost its luster with the fans and it’s possible that attendance and broadcast ratings next year could be even worse. Get with it. We don’t want to always be reminded of those Washington Senators circa 1961 to 1964, or of Bob Short, or that MLB passed over the D.C. market several times before making their way back.
Right now, D.C. is looking like AAA baseball in a AAA market. Let’s hope next year something more than the status woe is happening with the Nationals.